Feminism India

Politicizing Clothing

Clothing is complicated and women are often blamed for taking their own sweet time when it comes to choosing, assembling and dressing ourselves. But the world worries when a woman chooses something that it deems revolutionary and hence for the sake of internal peace and serenity we may take a little longer to make the appropriate choice regarding our attire. Probably this is why the term ‘wearing’ is synonymous with mental or physical tiredness.

Speaker Paul Ryan (like the few other things that he is extremely passionate about) is a firm proponent of ‘appropriate business attire in the House’. The recent debate around the 'appropriateness of attire' in the Capitol has sparked many discussions on the same, not to mention the CBS News female reporter who was denied entry into the Speaker’s lobby despite her very resourceful attempt to cover upper her sleeves using notepaper from her notebook. To quote a Vogue article, “the only written directive that does exist (on dress codes in the House chamber) is in Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives” and describes dress code as “customary and traditional attire for Members, including a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate attire for female Members”. By these standards a bonnet would make an appropriate attire.

Attire or clothing is often relegated to the realms of culture, tradition and fashion. But politics and social mores play a significant role in confirming what is considered appropriate verses what is not. Therefore, from being a basic component of human need, the position held by clothing becomes associated with other multiple dimensions that have the potential to re-frame and reflect ideologies and propagate State agenda.

Today my home state of Kerala, in India, is extolled for its high Human Development Index and in the words of noted American author, environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben, described as “the Mount Everest of Social Development”. But around 150 years ago when the state was torn by caste based oppression, women of lower castes were prohibited from covering their upper body. The practice continued till mid-nineteenth century. An infamous breast-tax was imposed on lower caste Hindu women who covered their breasts in public in the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore, (Travancore constitutes a large part of Kerala today). In a famous incident, in Cherthala in Kerala, Nangeli/Nancheli an Ezhava woman who was asked to pay the breast tax for covering her breasts cut both her breasts off and presented them to the tax-collector. Nangeli/Nancheli bled to death in the process and her husband killed himself on her pyre. This overwhelming instance of self-sacrifice paved way for reforms in Kerala with the King of Travancore withdrawing the breast tax.

Women in my state fought for the right to cover themselves. Today women elsewhere fight for the right to unveil/veil themselves. Hijab controversies as they are known have spread across countries notably in America, France, Turkey and Iran. When women wear or refuse to wear a headscarf, it becomes a political statement and a revolutionary act. In August 2016, 20 French towns including Nice, led by Cannes banned women from wearing a burkini. While this sparked a controversy on the very existence of a burkini in the first place and the simultaneous banning of the same, muslim women described how it offered women who did not wish to expose themselves the autonomy to enjoy the beach while still being covered. Since this is an area that is discussed exhaustively, it does not require my extensive comments. But I would like to touch upon the nuance associated with women and choice. Like reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy is a personal choice. It is a matter of personal agency and freedom being able to choose how to dress oneself.

From power dressing (from discussions on Hilary Clinton’s pant suits) to victim blaming during an instance of sexual violence (where the length of the victims skirt is under due consideration and hence cited as cause for undue provocation) clothing has the potential to provoke powerful reactions. Most unfortunately, politically, culturally and socially what one wears makes an associated radical statement. And perceptions on women’s clothing reiterates a Madonna-whore complex (for the uninitiated - a madonna-whore complex, credits to Freud, is the way one perceives women as either Madonnas,in the sense of virgin Mary not the pop icon, or as debased women).

A few years back, as a guest faculty in my college, I remember moderating a discussion on women and clothing with a class of around fifty girls. A common conclusion was that what a woman wore did not necessarily reflect her principles. A shorter skirt is not an invitation for sexual advances nor is it an indication of a person not having moral principles or values, moreover, a saree does not assure sainthood, if it did that would be easier than any other criteria required for canonization.

Indian. Female. And currently an international citizen. Lives by two quotes: "To thine own self be true" & "anuugacchati pravaha/ go with the flow".